Monday, September 18, 2017

Some quick, handy references

I just read that an Australian Senator called Fierravanti-Wells said the following:
I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman ... coming together in one unique union. That is what it has been for every culture, in every ethnicity, in every faith in every corner of the world for thousands and thousands of years.
Suggested reading:
The primary literature is cited in those entries. Also:
It would appear that the premise of this particular argument is demonstrably false. It would further appear that it is also not a logically valid argument, regardless of the truth or falseness of its premise:

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Botany picture #253: Coronidium waddelliae

Coronidium waddelliae (Asteraceae), Blue Mountains, 2016. This is very pretty perennial everlasting paper daisy that likes a bit of elevation. It can, for example, also be found in the lower parts of the Australian Alps.

Although only created in 2008 as part of the dismantling of the formerly polyphyletic Helichrysum, the genus Coronidium is unfortunately polyphyletic itself; the species that can be seen in an earlier post is a representative of the group that makes it so. What is more, even if that group were kicked out, the rest (to which C. waddelliae belongs) would still be paraphyletic to the well known golden everlasting genus Xerochrysum.

We are working on it.

Monday, September 11, 2017

What exactly is new about New Atheism?

On Sunday I went back to the book fair with my family, and of course I bought another few books. One of them is a collection of essays written by Bertrand Russell. As its title is Why I am not a Christian it is unsurprising that its first chapter is his talk of the same title, which he originally gave in 1927.

Summarising in order, the talk makes the following points:

He starts by giving his definition of Christian. For Russell this requires at a minimum belief in the existence of a god, in immortality, and that Jesus Christ was "the best and wisest of men".

Next, Russell disposes of several common arguments for the existence of God, observing along the way that the most frequently used arguments have become less respectable over time. The first cause argument falls flat the moment somebody asks "who made God?", because if God is allowed not to have an explanation then one could just as well allow the universe not to have an explanation.

The natural law argument does not work because it conflates human laws, which are prescriptive and indeed have law-givers, with natural laws, which are merely descriptive, merely scientific descriptions of what happens instead of prescriptions of what should happen. As such they do not need a law-giver. Russell also points out that science has shown them to be largely "statistical averages such as would emerge from the laws of chance; and that makes this whole business of natural law much less impressive than it formerly was." Finally he adds a Euthyphro style argument, that laws are not really laws if God just made them up, but that God is not required if they are truly laws of nature.

The argument from design was destroyed by Charles Darwin, and in that context Russell also introduces the argument from evil to show that the world does not look as if it was created by a benevolent, omnipotent being.

The moral argument is quickly disposed of by applying the Euthyphro dilemma.

Russell calls the argument for the remedying of injustice, i.e. the idea that god must exist or else there would be no ultimate justice in the world, very "curious", and I can only agree. I have only once seen it used in seriousness, and it is such blatant wishful thinking that it hardly needs refutation.

Having dealt with the existence of God, Russell transitions to the character of Christ. He calls "excellent" several of Jesus' teachings that I would consider unrealistic, for example 'turn the other cheek', but sarcastically points out that Christians do not actually follow those teachings. ("I have no doubt that the present Prime Minister, for instance, is a most sincere Christian, but I should not advise any of you to go and smite him on one cheek. I think you might find that he thought this text was intended in a figurative sense.")

As an aside, Russell mentions that "historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all".

More importantly, Russell says that there are "defects" in the teachings of Jesus the character of the gospels, most prominently that he mistakenly believed that the end of the world was imminent and that he believed in and took "a certain pleasure" in hell, i.e. eternal torture. The undeserved killing of a fig tree also gets a mention.

At this point Russell has explained why he is not a Christian. He now deals with the idea that even if religion is wrong it should still be promoted because it makes people behave morally by pointing out that it does the exact opposite. "You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step towards the diminution of war, every step towards better treatment of the coloured races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organised Churches of the world."

The talk ends by arguing that fear of the unknown and of death is the foundation of religion, and that it is time to dispose of it and build a good world on a new foundation: "Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations."


Russell was certainly an excellent writer, at least to my taste. He was concise, clear, and to the point. But really what struck me most when I read this talk / essay is that there really is no New to what has been called New Atheism these past fifteen years or so, i.e. the movement often considered personified by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens.

Because what really is its claim to novelty? Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is the claim that religion is not just wrong but harmful, and that its influence should be reduced. But go back a few paragraphs and you will see that Russell said the same in 1927.

Another idea is that its novelty might be in the view that science in particular has made belief in gods untenable, a position that is often derided as 'scientism' by philosophers who believe that they have a monopoly on refuting religious beliefs. Again, nothing new: where today some New Atheist might argue from evolution, astrophysics and neuroscience, a hundred years ago an atheist like Russell argued from evolution and astrophysics. And to be honest, neuroscience has found nothing in the last thirty years that refutes the concept of an immaterial soul more thoroughly than what people could already observe in the bronze age, for example that a strike to the head or drinking alcohol confuses our thinking.

Even rather specific side-issues have remained surprisingly unchanged. Richard Carrier et al. have in recent years made a lot of waves with the argument that Jesus never existed, and would you not know it, ninety years ago Russell mentioned this idea in a tone that suggests it was fairly widely accepted among educated people.

Really I don't think that arguments for or against gods have made much progress since 1859, and if somebody wanted a short but reasonably thorough introduction to atheist thought they would even today be well served with reading Bertrand Russell's Why I am not a Christian.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Book fair o'clock

It is the time of the Lifeline charity book fair again. Unfortunately I had to go alone today, but tomorrow we hope to get the whole family there. The loot so far:

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Fantasy alternate history, as in the Napoleonic times with magic. I have read good things about this book, so I'm happy to give it a try.

Bertrand Russell's Best, edited by Rogert Egner

Terry Jones, Douglas Adam's Starship Titanic. If I understand correctly this is a book after a computer game with which I am not familiar.

Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight. First novel of the Dragonriders of Pern series. The series has lots of volumes, and I could have bought more of them, but who knows how they are?

Anne McCaffrey, Dragonquest. Second novel in that series.

Kirk Mitchell, Cry Republic. As a teenager I read the trilogy of which this is the third novel in German translation. It is an alternate history story in which the Roman Empire never collapsed and has discovered electricity, steam and flight. Just noticed that the praise blurb on the front cover quotes Anne McCaffrey.

Great Dialogues of Plato, translated by W.H.D. Rouse. Continuing my education in classics, which perhaps should have happened in late high school but didn't.

Sean Williams, The Stone Mage and the Sea. I am afraid part of the reason I bought it is that I got confused and thought the author was Tad Williams. Ah well.

And for work:

H.T. Clifford & Gwen Ludlow, Keys to the Families and Genera of Queensland Flowering Plants. From the 1970s, but will still be useful.

Nicholas Gotelli, A Primer of Ecology. Having been trained as a systematist I am hoping to get a bit more insight into ecological modeling, and it includes a chapter on island biogeography that looks promising.

Andrew Young & Geoffrey Clarke, Genetics, Demography and Viability of Fragmented Populations. Because of a project I am currently involved with.

Two observations. First, as always I come home with loads of books but could only bring myself to donating two. Some day we will have to expand our book shelves, and I have no idea where. Second, it is astonishing how there are numerous copies of some books (e.g. McCaffrey's Nerilka's Story) but none whatsoever of other, one would think, equivalent books (e.g. the third volume of the same series).

Also, are the frequent ones frequent because they were so much more popular when they were published, or because nobody wants them now? On that note, it was interesting to see that the most frequent book in the "all faiths" section was The God Delusion. It was all the rage a decade ago, and I assume now lots of people think they don't need it anymore.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Botany picture #252: Stapelia

With spring in the air we bought some plants lately, including some succulents, and that brought my mind back to some of the plants I had in Europe but gave away when moving to Australia. This is a Stapelia, presumably S. grandiflora (Apocynaceae), in the Old Botanic Garden of Göttingen, Germany, 2016. I had a plant of the same species but of course much smaller.

Unfortunately they seem to be hard to get in Australia. The closest I saw were online stores that had them in the catalogue in theory but not actually in stock.

What is so amazing about these cactus-like plants that are not cacti at all is, of course, their flower morphology, and that morphology is dictated by their pollination ecology. The flowers mimic rotting meat in colour, scent and sometimes even hairiness and are pollinated by confused carrion flies. Some people wonder why one would want to have a stinking flower, but I believe that is an indispensable part of its wonderful weirdness.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Having fun with biodiversity databases

If you have ever professionally used a biodiversity database you will soon have noticed that we still have a long way to go before they are as reliable as we would like them to be.

Today I looked into the Atlas of Living Australia records for Senecio australis (Asteraceae). Except for a rather odd specimen from South Africa the distribution records look like this:

What do we have here? First, the four Australian mainland records all appear to be misapplications of the name. The Flora of New South Wales, for example, does not even mention the species, so I think we can safely assume it does not occur in Australia at all.

Second, the record in the middle of the top of the map is right in the ocean, no matter how closely we zoom in. If we look into its details, we see that it was collected on Norfolk Island, which is the cluster of red dots to its right, so somebody must have got the coordinates rather wrong.

Third, there is a cluster around Auckland, on New Zealand's North Island. I am not sure if Norfolk Island and North Island is a plausible area of distribution for this species, but it may well be. Zooming in closer to Norfolk Island, however, ...

... it looks as if somebody had played darts after having had a few too many beers. ALA informs us dryly under the section data quality tests, "habitat incorrect for species". No kidding. Or as my wife joked, unwilling to believe that the coordinates would be so badly off for such a large percentage of the specimens, "is there a fish that is also called Senecio australis?"

These are the problems that we are dealing with, more generally.
  • Whenever we do a study using data from biodiversity databases, as we increasingly do, we have to be very careful about cleaning the data. The main issues are outdated taxonomy, misidentifications, spatial data entry errors (which are particularly easy to recognise if an outlier record is exactly ten degrees away from a known occurrence), and imprecise spatial data. Just think of what it would do to species distribution modeling if we uncritically accepted all the records for Senecio australis.
  • While we can identify obvious mistakes while using a database, the data are "ground-truthed" in the actual specimens in some herbarium or museum, and the policy is usually (and quite sensibly) that the database won't update until a correction is made to that specimen in its home institution and then filters through from there. But many institutions do not have the resources to update data just because somebody sent them an eMail pointing out that their specimen is misidentified or that they made a data entry error; many herbaria on the planet are so understaffed that even the word understaffed is a euphemism. What is more, even if a database allows a registered user to annotate a record with corrections, the information may not necessarily flow back to the institution holding it, depending on whether somebody thought to set up such procedures or not.
  • Overall, Australia actually has excellent data quality, the Atlas of Living Australia actually allows annotations to be made, and several important Australian herbaria actually have the staffing to update their data. What I am saying is that this is as good as you can have it at the moment. It is much more difficult in many other parts of the world, and of course it would be good if we could have the same or better data quality for those areas.
Also, perhaps it is best not think too much about records that are not specimen-based but "human observations" or photos submitted by random people. There are, obviously, non-taxonomists whose knowledge of the flora is extensive, and citizen science can be awesome, but I have also seen several cases one the lines of "aaargh ... this is so misidentified it is not even the right tribe of the family, and now the database is using it as the profile picture of this nationally significant weed species!"

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Botany picture #251: Schizaea bifida

I have been meaning to post something more substantive, but very busy with other things. So here another plant, and a strangely looking one: Schizaea bifida (Schizaeaceae), a little fern from the Blue Mountains, 2011. Yes, except for the rootstock that is it, that's the whole fern. Some species of Schizaea have finely divided sterile leaves, but as the Flora of NSW Online remarks, in this species they are "rarely present", so what you see is a cluster of green lines with sporangia on top, the fertile leaves in all their splendour. But who is complaining? I love weird plants.

This was one of the plant groups I had only read about before coming to Australia, so when I saw it during a family holiday I was very happy. Sadly I have not again run into the genus since that one time six years ago.